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5 stars

Image result for The ChangelingOne of my favorite ghost stories, it has all the elements: a believable tortured performance by George C. Scott, a recent widower with whom an old house begins to communicate; absolutely chilling, hair-standing on the back of your neck moments; an engrossing mystery that seamlessly ties into the increasingly disturbing hauntings; and, a unhurried pace which heightens the terror.  Trust me. Or trust Martin Scorsese. It’s on his list of the 11 scariest horror films of all time.

Also, scariest wheelchair ever.

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Image result for Paddington 2Every bit as fun, entertaining and sweet as Paddington (seen but not reviewed). Director Paul King has infused the sequel with a Wes Anderson-esque quirkiness, clever detail, ingenious set designs, and playful cinematography, ala’ The Grand Budapest Hotel. Hugh Grant has aged nicely into a grand villain, and he fronts an inspired song-and-dance number to close the picture.

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Just as Dunkirk was an ode to English pluck and a representation of the viscerally brutal and arbitrary nature of war, The King’s Choice serves the dual purpose of a national homage to Norway’s resistance in the face of a Nazi invasion and the strain placed on the powerful and the ordinary in such circumstances.  Norway’s King Haakon VII, is a sweet, doting grandfather who is constitutionally deferential to a democratic body that is crumbling under the weight of events.  He must bolster the government while staving off the more muscular, ambitious desires of his son, which carry with them an implicit criticism of his father as weak.  Indeed, as the king suffers from a bad back, we often see him in a fetal position on the floor or a bed.  Meanwhile, the German attaché, who is juxtaposed favorably with the uncompromising Wermacht, desperately pleads with the king to accede to Hitler’s demand for submission, knowing that failure to do so totally will mean the deaths of many innocents.   The tension is palpable, the pace gripping, and the quiet moments – especially the scenes showing the effect on the families – poignant.

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Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) has had three flops and his “A Christmas Carol” is a must-win.  We spend the film watching Dickens cobble his daily observances into the book, and soon, he is followed by all of its characters, who inspire him to write more, or mock his writer’s block (most of the mocking is by way of Scrooge, played with a sly bite by Christopher Plummer).  The end of the book tortures Dickens, but much like Scrooge himself, addressing his personal demons brings the author to resolution and redemption.  This is great fun, very well-done and will take a post on my ten “must see” list of Christmas films next December.  Here are the other nine:

A Christmas Carol (George C. Scott version)

About a Boy

Die Hard

It’s a Wonderful Life

Arthur Christmas

A Christmas Story

Elf

Bad Santa

The Nightmare Before Christmas

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This is what a superhero movie is supposed to be. Consistently clever, mainly for young people but with crossover to adults, and devoid of all the dreary seriousness of Gotham city and world politics and ethical dilemmas for people dressed up for Mardis Gras. Add the fact that the characters are almost impossible not to enjoy, the CGI is nifty rather than a blaring assault, and there are some really funny bits. And the finale is a blast (rather than a dark, dull, crashing snorefest ala’ Wonder Woman). The film also has a proper villain, the sleek, sultry, campy goddess of death Cate Blanchett.

Quintessential popcorn flick.

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This is a clever, touching story of harried Ministry of Information filmmakers working on a “Dunkirk” morale booster propaganda picture during the Blitz.  An ode to the magic of movies and Brit pluck, the script is sly and witty, and the love interests (Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin) have actual chemistry.  But if none of that were true, I’d still recommend the picture unreservedly for Bill Nighy’s hilarious turn as a fussy, conceited, insecure actor who cannot accept that his age has negated his role as the hero.  As usual, he’s marvelous.  One reviewer aptly called Night “a colossally proportioned scene-stealer”, which is spot on.

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The Florida Project owes some debt to Beasts of the Southern Wild, another audacious and free-flowing picture that relied almost exclusively on a natural environment and its inhabitants through the eyes of a child.  In that film, the environment was the Southern bayou and a community cut off from the rest of the world by a Louisiana levee. Here, it is a stretch of highway miles from Orlando’s Disney World, where gift shops, liquor stores, time share scams and gaudy, low-end motels litter the strip.  The motels are primarily housed by people who pay by the week (the unfortunate tourists did not look too closely at the promotional materials), and we are introduced to the milieu via the daily play of four young actors. They are the children of poor people who cannot care for them during the day, and they play largely unobserved, unhindered, wildly, and desperate for attention.  That attention is given to them in a decent and caring manner by the motel manager, Willem Dafoe, who struggles to keep the right amount of emotional distance from the residents, almost all of whom are troubled or are going through tough times. He can barely disguise his affection for the children while at the same time maintaining order at his establishment, an order which includes forcing residents to spend a night away from the place at intermittent periods so they do not establish residency, and presumably, tenant rights.

I understand the child actors were for the most part amateurs, and the decision to use them was keen.  The best child actors lack the affectation and self knowledge you often find at its worst on Nickelodeon or in precocious children who watch too much of it.   These children are so natural, the film nearly veers into documentary, making their plight all the more harrowing and their story all the more compelling.  Brooklyn Prince, the leader of the kids, is seven years old, and she is mesmerizing.

Dafoe, who is nominated for best supporting actor, delivers a dignified, quiet and measured performance, but the film is stolen by Bria Vinatae, who plays the single mother of one of the children. She is a child herself, wholly ill-equipped to raise one of her own, yet fiercely loving and resourceful.

Director Sean Baker (Tangerine) eschews a traditional narrative, opting for a languorous approach that mirrors the hot summer days depicted in the film.  The effect is to embed the viewer with the children and their community, which heightens what you feel for these kids.  Yet, there is not a single maudlin or false note.

Best film of the year.